Have you ever held entrails in your hands? Like long sausages they slip and slide, warm, feeling strangely seductive yet evoking disgust. To feel the visceral insides of any body is strange (unless you are a butcher or surgeon). I’ve had Elizabeth Wilson’s book in my hand a few days now, thrown inside my bag and taken out later at night to read. The book now sits next to me, and something shiny draws me in to look at the cover. Intently, I start to peer through the bold typeface of her title, through to the image it cuts and hides. I draw the book closer, my perspective shifts and I see the shiny pillows of gut viscera, the purple sheen of curved intestines and yellow globules of mesenteric fat. I immediately search for the details of this image and find them on the back cover. This is the work of elin o’Hara slavick, a Professor of Visual Art, Theory and Practice at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her photograph shows the spilled guts of a just-slaughtered cow, and is called ‘Global Economy’.
I want to linger on this image as I think it raises the central provocations of this book. This image turns things inside out, insides of bodies on the outside of the book. Insides and outsides together, not as separate entities, but ‘cut’ literally and conceptually (in Karen Barad’s terms) by the words on the page. This jarring of opposites is not intended to shock; these are not conventional opposites ‘radically detached from each other’ (143). Binaries are conceptual demarcations that ‘ensnare us all’ (146), but in this book (as an on-going intellectual endeavor) Wilson wants to move beyond ‘components’ and investigate the ways that guts, minds, pills and neurology cohabit, entwine, and annex each other as they ‘bind, braid, branch and cleave’ (150); in other words, how they are all inherently shaped by one another. This is the intra-action of words and biological agencies.
Wilson makes a valid case for the central role that feminist theories have had in the historical relationships of dismissing biology, and she clearly draws inspiration from feminists who have critically engaged with the reworking of nature and culture. She doesn’t want to push biology away like second wave feminists have done, like water repelling oil. Joining feminist calls for a renewed alliance between feminist work and biological processes (including nods to feminist science studies and ‘new’ material feminist scholars), she describes betrothals and battles between historical figures and modes of thought. Rubin and Kipnis’ arguments are used to show how feminist theory got itself trapped in relation to biology; Freud and Ferenczi’s friendship became strained in their handwritten letter exchanges over the volatility of anatomy and the biological unconscious, and in the chapter “Bitter Melancholy,” Wilson shows how depression is not anger turned inwards as the Freudian hypothesis suggests, but an outward aggression. In each of these cases neurological data and critical inquiry of eating, digestion, vomiting, lumps in throats, bodily fluids, hunger, sex, gut, brain, nerves and will, ‘meet and cut across each other’ (176), demonstrating the importance of ‘thinking biology dynamically’.
In beautiful historical detail Wilson succeeds in drawing critical attention away from the centre (brain) and bending it towards the periphery (gut) (99). This book is in itself a ‘fantastic voyage’ of pharmaceuticals as they travel and dissolve in and around many different agencies in the alimentary tract, metabolic pathways and organs of the body (and not just in the brain). We are repeatedly directed to the inseparability of psyche and soma which are ‘always already coevolved and coentangled’ (66). Here, Wilson emphasizes that depression is a more outwardly aggressive event than currently (and historically) thought, and that this outward expression of hostility is the mark of every political action. These are not politically inert matters. In light of cries that such biological leanings are unpolitical, Wilson cites Derrida’s pharmakon to show the aggressive ambiguity of harm and remedy working in tandem. This dissonant alliance is a sharp reminder to counter my desire to err on one side, of recto (critique) or verso (scientific ebullience).
Hannah Landecker suggests that some readers will devour this book and others will throw it across the room. I have done the former (and perhaps we should do both), but in the moment of devouring and trying to absorb the analysis, it spills, dissolves, changes structure and transforms. As much as I desire to be drawn to this, I also want to capture spills and hold on to entrails, wedded to social anthropological modes of rationalization which are deeply embedded and embodied in my training. Yet guts, gut distress, gut mindedness, gutting and being gutted slide across each other in so many assemblages, touching histories, theories, medicine, pharmacology and psychoanalysis. Feminism, biology, pills, placebos and guts are all thrown into a ‘vertiginous’ space which is not seamless or unified, but full of consiliences, hostilities and political encounters. This is alluring scholarship and perfect in its timing in arguing that ‘feminist theory could engage the contemporary landscape more potently if it was able to read biology more closely and tolerate the capacity for harm’ (17).